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Money always creates interest. We've already reported that PewDiePie generated $4 million in 2013. Disney recently acquired the YouTube multi-channel network (or "MCN," in YouTube culture) he works with, Maker Studios, for $500 million.
While Maker has many shows outside of games, that acquisition illustrates two things: that mainstream media companies are interested in the YouTube space, and that the entertainment establishment views YouTube as a distinct market and medium from its closest analogues, TV and film.
That kind of heat generates a lot of light; everyone is now closely watching the space. While not every company will be acquired -- some will see investments, and others may flounder -- the Disney deal alone is enough to stir up the pond. As always, old media companies are desperate to stay on top of new trends.
New companies will also emerge; YouTubers that started off as individuals will grow into collectives, and then into new businesses -- which has already happened with Yogscast and 3BlackDot, a marketing and content company co-founded by SeaNanners and Syndicate along with two ex-Machinima staffers.
Key Quote: "We've noted for some time now that a lot of our younger audience spends a lot of time on YouTube. ... We wanted to propel ourselves further in that arena in as quickly and as high quality a way that we could." - Disney exec Kevin Mayer
YouTubers also take money from game developers -- and make money for them, as Howard Tsao writes in this blog post about Guns of Icarus Online and its partnership with YouTube network Polaris (including popular YouTuber TotalBiscuit.)
Tsao paid the company to promote his game; the YouTubers played the game; once posted, the videos generated sales of the game.
Guns of Icarus Online monthly sales show boosts from Yogscast, TotalBiscuit, PewDiePie, Polaris
(chart by Howard Tsao)
And with developers paying YouTubers to cover their games -- in relationships that are getting tighter all the time -- and partnering with video portals for distribution, the amount of money moving every which way around this phenomenon will both ensure its continuance and everyone's interest in it.
Key Quote: "For instance, one YouTube video had incredibly generated over $35K in sales for us on its first day of going live." - Guns of Icarus Online developer Howard Tsao
YouTubers appeal to their audiences in different ways from traditional game journalists. That's obvious when you consider the medium itself -- printed text versus video -- but it goes beyond that. After all, game websites long pioneered the use of video; many of the gamer-oriented publications also have a "we're just like you" ethos.
There's still a wall there.
The ad-hoc, direct-to-fan approach, and most importantly the entertainment focus of these YouTube videos sets them apart. They're convenient, direct, clear, and funny. They connect.
While it's obvious that some viewers are influenced to buy games based on the YouTubers' experiences and criticisms, it's just as obvious that many simply check them out to see what it looks like when someone plays a game they're interested in.
But if you watched that PewDiePie video embedded earlier in this article -- whether you enjoyed it or you didn't -- it's obvious that it is, in and of itself, a piece of entertainment, not criticism.
Whether or not you ever play the game featured in a video, you can enjoy the YouTuber's treatment of it. That's one of the reasons that the phenomenon has taken off, and why the most famous series Game Grumps has ever produced is its full playthrough of Sega's notoriously awful 2006 Sonic the Hedgehog reboot.
"My name is PewDiePie"
YouTubers are approachable, accessible, and fun. They're providing something that established media -- both in the form of the online enthusiast game press and entrenched corporations like Disney -- was not equipped to: a simple connection. They treat games as players do; the games press, well, it's still the press, and can never shake that off.
Kjellberg chalks up his success to "breaking the wall between the viewer and what's behind the screen." The oldest video still active on his account? A Minecraft session with a friend.
This article by Maddy Meyers is essential reading if you're trying to understand the appeal of Kjellberg and his cohort.
Key quote: "The implication of this jealousy is that being funny on the internet is easy, and that Kjellberg’s audience is too stupid to realize that they’re supposed to be reading long-form feature stories. I would say that my fellow journalists need to think harder about what Kjellberg offers to his audience that they do not." - Maddy Meyers, "In Defense of PewDiePie"
The short of it: Some YouTubers are accepting money from developers and publishers to feature their games, and their disclosure of this fact may not meet legal standards. Even if it does, well... Is it quite on the level to take money to talk about games when you oftentimes do it for free, and it's hard to distinguish which is which? Maybe not.
There's a lot more to the issue than this quick summary, but you've either already read the articles linked above -- or you should do so immediately. One sign that this is a developing issue, however, is that John "TotalBiscuit" Bain has now said that, moving forward, his sponsored videos will include a splash screen that clearly identifies them as paid-for.
Key quote: "Generally speaking, if an advertiser or a marketer is paying someone to write favorable reviews, the reviewer needs to disclose that, and that disclosure should be clear and conspicuous, and should be upfront and easy to see where the viewer won't miss it." - The Federal Trade Commission's Mary Engle